September 4th, 2020 by Karen Burg

Main Photo
Wakanda Royal Throne Room… Upon the death of his father, the king, and after defeating all challengers to the throne in ritual combat, T’Challa [Chadwick Boseman] takes on the mantle of Black Panther, King of Wakanda... Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel.

Set Decorator Jay Hart SDSA
Production Designer Hannah Beachler
Disney /Marvel Studios


we are re-releasing the BLACK PANTHER article which first appeared when the film exploded onto theatrical screens.

Set Decorator Jay Hart SDSA, who took us behind-the-scenes about the making of the film and won an Academy Award®, shares this tribute to the film's real-life hero...

Like all things Wakanda, Chadwick had a depth that was a little mysterious. 
He was reserved and unassuming, almost to the point of shyness. Lovely to experience, for an Actor of his depth and caliber.
Though I, like most, was completely unaware of his battle with illness, I knew there was a lot going on behind the public persona.
You could just see the wheels turning behind his eyes.
I chalked it up to an Actor working on his Character.
In the creation of T’Challa’s private quarters in the Gold Tower of Wakanda, we discussed how to display his privileged upbringing, his Oxford education and his innate thirst for knowledge as it applied to his becoming King and ruling in a way that was in the best interest of his people. Something that resonates loudly in these current unsettled times. 

I really liked that, as he was talking the language of Set Decoration. 
The movie adeptly points out the struggle between Eric Killmonger’s view that Wakanda should be open and share its wealth with the disenfranchised of the world, and the point of view that to remain uncolonized and free, Wakanda needed to remain invisible and protect its wealth.
A timeless quandary.  
With Chadwick’s passing, the world has lost a King/Ruler/Actor who deftly pointed out the humanity in all of us and our struggle to do the right thing.
He will be missed.

From Disney/Marvel Studios...2018
After the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, T’Challa [Chadwick Boseman] returns home to the hidden, isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king and the mantle of Black Panther. But when a powerful old enemy reappears, T’Challa’s valor as king and Panther, is tested as he is drawn into a formidable conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people and their way of life.                           
“Marvel films take you on a ride. I hope audiences have a great ride, and walk out engaged and inspired as well,” says Director Ryan Coogler. “I wanted Wakanda to be current, to be of this world, tactile and real, so much so that people want to go there after the film is done...”

As fantastical as the world of Wakanda is, the entire production team made certain that the spiritual, the mystical and the technological influences in the country’s culture were still anchored in the real world and that the outside world was definitively portrayed.
To ensure both fantastical and real, Coogler relied on his longtime collaboration with Production Designer Hannah Beachler, who brought on estimable Set Decorator Jay Hart SDSA. Their teams working in sync with Director of Photography Rachel Morrison ASC, Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter and their crews, along with visual and special effects departments, elevated the Marvel superhero universe and literally millions of moviegoers’ experience.
Beachler, Hart and Carter were subsequently honored with Academy Awards®.

SET DECOR caught up with Hart, just after the film’s release, for an insider perspective on this global phenomenon. Behind the scenes, from throne-making to world-making...
The challenge with BLACK PANTHER was to be vigilant about introducing a new chapter to the Marvel Universe. I was very focused on how we would present these characters as we were laying the groundwork for films following ours. Wakanda as a character in the film was front and center on all of our minds.

We did a deep dive on the History of Wakanda and what that was and how it evolved over time hidden from, but in tandem with, the rest of the world. PD Hannah Beachler did a printed timeline showing how Wakandan society evolved and surpassed the world. When the Earth’s societies were in the Industrial Revolution, Wakanda had highly technical communications and advanced transit and art and agriculture—all based on the introduction of Vibranium and a people smart enough to know how to develop and use it, a monarchy-based government with a long and regal and proud history. The original comic book gave us some of this, however, we had to fill in the blanks so we would have a full picture of who these characters were and where they came from.  
The directive from the Director and the PD was that we be absolutely true to African Culture. We researched various African tribes and identified those that we felt had visuals that worked with our perception of the Wakandans. We designed our own fabrics and furniture and lighting and built it all in our own Set Decorating Shop. I was continually grateful and awestruck at the capabilities and creative input I got from my entire team. This was a large film and I had to rely heavily on my team, John Naehrlich, Brock Helfer, Mick Cummings, Kevin Kropp, J.R. Vasquez, Ely Veigh, Nicole Eldridge, Kenji Kondo, Dan Foster, Mark Hudson, Eric West, April Labranche, Jack Cornelius and many more... too many to mention.  
The creation of Wakanda was exciting and scary at the same time. I felt a lot of responsibility to get it right, especially as all the fans of the comic book would be picking through it with a fine-tooth comb, When I was in doubt, my default design decision was to rely on African History and draw from that.
Example of incorporation of African history...
[Editor’s note: See photo captions above for more details...]
...i.e. an ancient Nigerian script from the 5th century written on the metal columns in the Tribal Council/Royal Throne Room...
The Wakandan alphabet took some time to develop. Hannah actually used a hybrid of 3 different scripts to develop the Wakandan idiom. The set dec obligation was to use it in the appropriate places. As simple as labels on the Talon Flyer cargo to the Royal Seal in the royal apartments (cut from the film). It almost took on a kind of modern art vibe. Its use in the credits was really wonderful.

...with Production Designer Hannah Beachler...
Hannah spent some time as a set decorator so she brought an innate understanding of what we do. This was very refreshing and when she realized that we had the ability to design and build/fabricate, we became joined at the hip. 
She definitely wanted a sophisticated non-cartoonish style. She and Ryan wanted to represent Wakanda as an old and proud, intelligent and sophisticated place. We spent a lot of time talking about what made Wakanda different. The fact that it had avoided colonization was a story point that we tried to drive home. We wanted to imprint a personality on the Wakandan civilization. This was most evident in Step Town, the “old city” area where the hip Wakandan went to dine and hang. That was a really fun set for all because we could flex a little creative muscle. Hannah’s use of graffiti was extraordinary.  

...with Director Ryan Coogler...
Ryan Coogler is at the end of the day a storyteller. He was laser-focused on how we all were presenting the characters and unveiling Wakanda.

Having written part of the script, he had a really good grasp on what made the characters tick.
He would from time to time come to us with specific requests. T’Challa’s throne in the Tribal Council Royal Throne Room was a last minute addition. Ryan kept clinging to the idea that Panther would not have a throne, that he would be the same level as the other tribal council leaders. However, two weeks prior to shooting the throne room, he decided that Panther should have a throne. So I did a napkin drawing, walked it into the Set Dec shop and a week later we had Panther’s throne...and it ended up being key in the one-sheet and the trailers.
Ryan and Hannah having worked together so much really relied on each other during PANTHER. They had meetings and conversations every day. He sought out her opinions and leaned heavily on her vision of Wakanda and the characters. Most of the creative vision for the film was filtered thru Hannah. Ryan, Hannah, and I would have meetings where we discussed the set dressing and its backstory and what each of the sets was saying about Wakanda. He often would ask for something specific. But at the end of the day it was that synchronization of Ryan’s/Hannah’s vision that we keyed off of. 
Ryan, apart from being a super storyteller and creative, was also a really kind human being, and working with him was great.
...with Costume Designer Ruth Carter...
Ruth’s designs were truly breathtaking. We worked in collaboration on color, but the palettes were part of the overall production design of the film. We definitely used the palettes in our work and how we chose color and finishes for the sets and ships, etc. We also went to great lengths to create sigils and identifiable seals and symbols generic to each tribe. 

...with Director of Photography Rachel Morrison...
We collaborated quite a bit with Rachel. We were very, very involved with how the sets were lit, as much of it was practical light fixtures. She had a color arc that she wanted to use for the film employing color temperatures to convey different moods in different environments. Phil Abeyta, the fixtures foreman was just a rock star. He made everything work and we threw a lot of stuff at him.
Which exactly describes my whole team and gives a window into how dedicated and creative everyone on this film was.

Photo 3
Panther’s Royal Apartment… The private quarters of the king of an advanced and historic African nation... Set Decorator Jay Hart SDSA reveals some sources... Hanging lights, sconces, and bookcase lamp: Arteriors Antique throne chairs: Purchased from antique dealer in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Photo 4
Panther’s Royal Apartment a.k.a. T’Challa’s quarters… Re: the unique range of artifacts, Harts says, “We wanted to tell the story that he was educated in different world philosophies...” Director Ryan Coogler notes that the red, green and gold palette represents the Pan African flag...

Photo 5
Panther’s Royal Apartment a.k.a. T’Challa’s quarters… Every patterning shape is symbolic, the materials representative of Africa...ebony, clay and sand, as well as the chevroned leather and the stone necklace worn by Nakia [Lupita Nyong’o], Wakandan War Dog (international spy) and and T’Challa’s seemingly uninterested love interest... Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel Studios. All rights reserved.

Photo 6
Wakanda Tribal Council, Royal Throne Room… “A lot of what we tried to do is mix the two ideas together of our past and our present, but never getting rid of the past. It’s always there,” explains Production Designer Hannah Beachler “In order to achieve that feel, we put a ruin in the middle of the room, under a high-tech-looking glass floor, so that the tribal council would actually be sitting on the ruin, a symbol of their ancient history... Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel Studios. All rights reserved.

Photo 7
Wakanda Royal Throne Room… Hart reveals, “The conversation up until the week prior to shooting was that Panther did not have a throne, he would have a carved stool like all the other tribal council leaders. We made and painted the stools in the Set Dec shop. Then the decision was made that he would indeed have a royal seat. So I did a napkin drawing, walked it into the Set Dec shop and a week later we had Panther’s throne, which ended up being featured in the one-sheet, trailers and publicity...” Ryan Coogler, Chadwick Boseman. Image ©2017, Disney/Marvel Studios. All rights reserved.

Photo 8
Wakanda Throne Room… “The bronze panthers pictured here were fabricated in Thailand and were ordered and delivered by Phil Edgerly, a buyer and art consultant. We used them in several different sets,”

Photo 9
Wakanda Hall of Kings “Here, the bronze panthers guard the burial chamber for Wakandan Kings and all their sacred objects. We also created curved sculptural fire vessels and a wall of masks,” Hart imparts... Son of the late Wakandan War Dog, N’Jobu, American Erik Stevens a.k.a. Killmonger is a new foe, with designs on the throne and world power... Michael Jordan. Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel. All rights reserved.

Photo 10
Jabari fortress… “This was one the most satisfying sets to participate in,” Hart relates... “The Jabari are a Wakandan tribe that live outside of direct Wakandan and Panther rule. They have their own sovereign, live in the mountains and have shunned the use of vibranium. We had to collect and identify sacred objects that would be singular to the Jabari... The flaming pedestals were designed in the Set Dec shop, the hammered copper bowls are Restoration Hardware sinks.” Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel. All rights reserved.

Photo 11
Jabari throne… “Hannah conceived of the hanging log structure but the implementation of it was all Set Dec. We imported skinned logs from Michigan and then designed a rope structure that could wild. It took some skilled engineering to figure this out. Jack Cornelius was the gangboss on this and he worked it all out, with a little help from John Naehrlich, the best leadman in the Known Universe, including Wakanda.” Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel. All rights reserved.

Photo 12
Jabari throne… Winston Duke as M’Baku, the formidable leader of the Jabari tribe... Hart reveals, “The throne was designed by Kenji Kondo, the head of my Set Dec Construction team, and was completely built and painted in the Set Dec Shop.” Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel. All rights reserved.

Photo 13
Jabari… “You can see evidence of the hanging log structure here. The finish on the walls behind Panther’s head is a burnt wood process that is used frequently in Japan. Hannah went to great lengths to get just the right color and finish. The Set Dec Dept designed the organic floor light fixtures you can see in the background...” Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, Letitia Wright. Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel.

Photo 14
Wakanda Design Group… Tech wizard Princess Shuri [Letitia Wright], T’Challa’s [Chadwick Boseman] younger sister, is the top scientist in Wakanda and the innovator behind Black Panther’s updated suits and technology. Image ©2017 Disney/Marvel. All rights reserved.